Friday, October 10, 2008

Week 1

Whoever said they were the slacker shouldn't feel any shame as I am just now posting three weeks worth of blog today.

I teach three classes each Wednesday morning starting with Fifth Grade and meandering through Fourth until finally reaching Third. I have 27 kids in entirety and they are all learning to write comics. We meet in the art teacher's office and have two round tables and ten chairs. The upside to this is that the art teacher is in and out all the time and supplies me with any resources that I need. On the downside, I can write on her chalkboard only if I don't mind smearing my entire right half with orange from a rusty filing cabinet. This wouldn't be a downside if the student's weren't always asking me to draw examples of slices of cake, monkeys, and submarines for them to reference.

I have only one goal in my classroom management: to make sure that my students are writing nearly every minute of each forty-five minute class. It's not about keeping them occupied or holding their attention; rather, it's about prioritizing the time for their generation of ideas. There's probably a more eloquent way of saying it, but when I tell the student's they have fifteen minutes to write a collaborative dialogue, they really hit the ground running and come up with some fantastically creative work. When you're brainstorming for inspiration and innovation in writing, quality emerges from quantity.

As was suggested to me, I avoid over planning and give five minutes of direction at most. I spend most of the time going from student to student to discuss their work individually or answering questions as they arise. I don't assign homework but do expect them to complete several in-class writing assignments every week. I collect one or two of them and add them to a portfolio that I will return to each student at the end of the session.

The first week all that we focused on was dialogue. I passed out packets of speech balloons and had the students fill them in with conversations between two characters of their choosing. We discussed how to convey who a character is by not only what they say, but how they say it. I showed them an example of a panel from TinTin in which a reporter has a lot of words crammed into one speech bubble to show that he is talking very fast. We also discussed how to make sure the responses made sense and allowed the conversation to flow. When I felt they understood the process, I passed out blank sheets of paper and gave them five more minutes to write their own conversations. These I collected.

Upon review at home, I discovered the conversations ranged from one between talking muffins to one between General Londo and his brother to one between two unnamed characters about a woman's car blowing up. So far so good. And that was just Fifth Grade. There really is no noticable difference in the ability of a Fifth Grader and a Third Grader to produce ideas. Often, I've found that the Third Graders do better; they seem to have little check on their imaginations. Their only limitation seems to be a greater frequency of miss-spelled words and shorter sentences. (Which, in the world of comics, aren't really limitations at all)

For the last assignment I made the kids pair up with a fellow student from the other table (gasp - the only two boys in my Fifth Grade class had sat at the same table). They were to take turns writing speech bubbles to form a coherent conversation in the remaining fifteen minutes of class. These I also collected.

Here, I could have given the students more direction. Without a goal to work toward with the conversation, quite a few of the dialogues rambled. Discussing likes and dislikes seemed to be a popular choice. Granted, as I kid most of my conversations followed that vector too, but I was looking for more creativity in the subject matter. In the following weeks I made sure to be more explicit with my directions. I realize my expections are high, but if you were come to any of my classes you would have no doubt that my students could, and do, meet them.

Even in the failures of this assignment, the students were able to mine a great deal of learning from it. This can be seen in one particularly unsuccessful dialogue:

S1: "You stink! I hate you!"
S2: "Well you are to!"
S1: "Let's move on to another subject!"
S2: "Okay!"
S1: "What time do you go to bed?"

I was reading over the students' shoulders while this was being written and had them pause to discuss whether any one would actually say that in real life. While I assured them that insults were perfectly appropriate in comics, the transition to the question didn't work. We later brainstormed ideas on how they could say the same thing in way wouldn't seem so unnaturally abrupt.

Overall, using speech bubbles worked really well for all of the grades. It allowed them to organize quite sophisticated conversations they might not have otherwise been able to write in essay form. and were a good launching off point for the weeks to come.

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